by Frank Santoroski @seveng1967
Fresh off of an exciting Indianapolis 500, the stars and cars of the Verizon IndyCar Series have arrived in Detroit, Michigan for a double-header weekend: The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans.
Held in the birthplace of American automobile manufacturing, the event itself has an on-and-off history and a checkered past. Many drivers, past and present, have a love-hate relationship with Detroit.
The first incarnation of the Detroit Grand Prix was held in 1982 as a Formula One race. A temporary street course was built in the downtown area around the city’s Renaissance Center. The narrow, seventeen-turn circuit turned out to be the slowest track on the calendar, and one of the roughest. A portion of the course actually crossed over railroad tracks which, as you can imagine, is not very pleasant in a high-downforce race car.
The race was unforgiving on both drivers and equipment, and the narrow nature of the track left little room for mistakes. Held in the heat of the summer, the track surface was also prone to crumbling. The Grands Prix held in Detroit were often a battle for survival, with high attrition rates. Despite some modifications to the course, in 1988 F-1 unceremoniously dropped the event from its schedule.
The Grand Prix resurfaced in 1989 as an event for the CART Series. CART ran the downtown circuit for three years before relocating it to the Raceway at Belle Isle for 1992. The semi-permanent temporary street course (make sense out of that oxymoron if you can) drew its own set of complaints.
The track was not only narrow with very few passing opportunities, but the support and paddock areas were unpaved, forcing the crews to work ankle-deep in mud at times. The event was once again shelved after the 2001 race.
In 2006, Roger Penske was instrumental in bringing the race back and it was added to the IndyCar Series schedule for 2007. After two IndyCar events, it was dropped again. This time, the reason cited was economic instability in Detroit.
In 2012 the Detroit Grand Prix rose from the ashes yet again, returning to the IndyCar schedule. The return was marred by a deteriorating racing surface which resulted in a two-hour delay to patch the track. The event was eventually shortened when the sun began to set.
After a good patching-up, the 2013 race weekend was extended to a double-header, as it remains to this day.
For 2015, the Raceway will see nearly 5 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements. This is largely due to Belle Isle now being run as a State Park through the Department of Natural Resources. The improvements include a much-needed repaving, with a large portion of the asphalt being replaced with concrete. Drainage and lighting upgrades will also be evident. The course was modified slightly taking the kink out of the backstretch. The current configuration features thirteen turns over 2.34 miles.
The 2014 race weekend was an all-Penske affair with Will Power winning Saturday, and his teammate, Helio Castroneves finding victory lane on Sunday. However, IndyCar’s recent history has shown us that street circuits can produce surprise winners and give somewhat of an equalizing effect to the smaller teams.
The Penske and Ganassi teams, with eight entries between them, have to be considered the favorites. In the Penske camp, drivers Power, Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud have all won at this facility. Indy 500 winner, Juan Pablo Montoya has proven that he is a threat to win anywhere.
At Ganassi, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are former Detroit winners, and Charlie Kimball took a podium in 2014. Only rookie Sage Karam, who hasn’t had much of a chance to shine yet, seems to be a long shot in this group.
Other names to keep your eye on include Graham Rahal, who has consistently been the top-running Honda car. The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan driver will be excited to return to Belle Isle, where he posted a second-place finish last season.
He’s had some great runs on the street and road courses thus far, and will be looking to break Chevrolet’s dominance. Rahal sits fifth in points, with a chance to crack the top three if all goes his way this weekend.
Honda may also pin their hopes on Takuma Sato, driver of the A.J. Foyt car. Sato took pole at Detroit last year, and always runs well on this type of circuit.
Honda’s flagship team, Andretti Autosport, seems hopelessly lost this season. I would imagine that with their considerable resources and depth that they will figure it out soon. However, I feel quite certain that the public criticism and negativity towards the aero-kits from the team owner are not helping matters any.
Amongst the second-tier Chevrolet teams, expect a formidable challenge from Sebastien Bourdais in the KVSH Racing car. Bourdais excels on street courses, and if there is any rain on the weekend, expect the Frenchman to really shine. His rookie teammate, Stefano Coletti, has shown flashes of brilliance this season, and seems to be due for a good run.
Josef Newgarden, the series’ newest winner, will be looking to add to his win total at CFH Racing and should not be counted out.
In some program notes, Conor Daly will be running with Schmidt-Peterson Racing, filling in for James Hinchcliffe, who is recovering from injuries sustained at Indianapolis.
Dale Coyne Racing, with a revolving door of drivers this season, has entered Rodolfo Gonzalez and Tristan Vautier for Belle Isle. Perhaps we have seen the last of Francesco Dracone in the series: one can only hope.
The action gets underway Friday morning with practice and qualifying. Saturday and Sunday’s races will both run at 3:30 pm EST and will be broadcast on ABC-TV.
Photos courtesy IndyCar